In the Beginning Was the Sea is Colombian writer Tomás González’s first novel, written in 1983 and only recently published for the first time in English by Pushkin Press (in Frank Wynne's translation). The lyrical, haunting story has the feel of a fable—a young man and his beautiful wife abandon their hectic, intellectual, night-clubbing life in the city to buy a farm on an undeveloped stretch of coast—while the spare, disquieting prose suggests the start of an art-house horror film. Indeed, things soon begin to go wrong on the finca. But the gradual deterioration stems not from external forces so much as the couple’s own inner unravelling; the solitude and placid obduracy of the sea cannot calm the demons they’ve carried from their previous life and eventually, inevitably it seems, tragedy ensues.
González has written six novels and a poetry collection since In the Beginning Was the Sea, which is actually based on the true life and death of his brother, an eerie fact that does not drag the story into nostalgia or sentimentalism; the telling remains removed, almost reporterly. At the beginning of our correspondence over email, González expressed his wish not to speak of his brother or of the novel as a true story—which he’d already done a great deal already—but rather to discuss it as a work of fiction. Thus disconnected from any biographical counterparts, the characters—J. and Elena—and their attempt to grasp a simple life by the sea drift into the fey realm of mythology.
J.’s downfall on the finca is heavily foreshadowed from the very beginning; you say he bathed in the spring “until the end,” you refer to “the corpse,” and “his last two winters on earth.” Does this merely create an ominous feeling of doom, or are we meant to see J’s life and failure on the finca as fatally predetermined?
I tried to create in the reader the feeling of something similar to the gathering of a storm. In order to do that, the storm itself—J.'s violent death—had to be mentioned. But I don't think their failure was predetermined. J. and Elena could have succeeded. That's why the person who writes the letter in the middle of the book is so angry. He thinks they both made a mess of this simple, reachable dream.
But is it reachable? J. remarks to himself, “The sunshine and the sea don’t cost us anything.” Yet of course they do. Is the terrible price J. pays in the end ultimately the cost of supposedly free paradise—the humble pleasures of nature?
If they had a very small fixed monthly income, things could have been different. Say four hundred dollars. It is not nothing, four hundred dollars a month, but it is still a very good price for a paradise. With that money they could have had a better chance at managing their own demons, their own souls. But they didn't have it, so they had to find ways to get money to survive. The cattle had to be sold, and the day they took it away J. just had to get drunk. And his farm was full of very good timber that had to be cut and sold, and when he saw the fall of his first beautiful tree, he just had to get drunk. On that occasion he drank probably two or three days in a row. The sunshine and the sea certainly started to cost them more and more every day.
Would four hundred dollars a month really have been enough to save them from their demons—is any amount enough? We get a snapshot of J.’s life before moving to the finca: “the familiar routine of alcohol and cocaine-fueled sessions in dreary apartments and pounding rock music in nauseatingly ‘hip’ nightclubs.” This is what he longs to escape by moving to the island—yet his demons follow him, of course; he’s drinking aguardiente from the very beginning, and you write later that “sometimes, particularly when drinking, J. felt as though he might explode with joy.” He never seems to feel this kind of joy when he’s sober. Can a little monthly income truly help a man escape his alcoholic tendencies, his plunge into self-destructive indulgence?
Medellín at that time was a difficult place for young people. Along with the hippism (alcohol, drugs, etc.) and the leftism (many young people enlisted in the guerrillas) we had the beginning of what was soon to become the nightmare, the hell, of the drug business.
And J. wanted to live and to be happy. He didn't go to that remote area to get killed. He thought, and he probably was right, that Medellín was a place you’d better escape from if you could. He was trying to escape death, not look for death. And he had everything figured out. He even had a little more than those four hundred a month we have been talking about. He had given his capital, almost all the money he had, to a relative who was supposed to send him the interest every month. J. had read Hegel, but he was not a businessman at all. And the guy robbed him.
It is true that he was drinking, but at the beginning at the finca it was joyful drinking. Some people can do it for years. I knew a guy in Cali who got drunk with half a bottle of aguardiente every single evening for more than thirty years. He had discipline—no more than half a bottle, never start drinking before 6 pm—and thanks to that discipline he could enjoy many happy drinking evenings, surrounded by his loving family. J. had his demons, of course, but he was quite capable of controlling them, and could have kept on with his happy drinking maybe all his life. And if he had been happy he could have made Elena happier, too. Who knows. The equilibrium of a whole life may depend on a modest thing such as four hundred dollars. I remember a short story about a starving boxer who didn't have the money to buy himself a good steak the day before a fight, and he was too weak and lost a fight that was the last big chance he had in his life.
On the other hand you may be right. The isolation (it was not an island, but it felt like one), that relentless sea, that inhuman jungle, those strange people—all could have ended up weakening him completely, leaving him to be devoured by his demons, even if he had his ridiculously little monthly income. We will never know. And we will keep pondering.
The “relentless sea” is such a beautiful but ominous force in this novel; Elena describes the “hateful roar of the sea,” and even J. who loves his finca prefers to “stare at the sea rather than to swim.” The sea obviously figures into the biological and mythological origins of life—as the title suggests—but does it mean anything else to you?
The sea is the symbol of eternity, of course. Eternity is where you come from when you are born and where you go when you die, be it conscious eternity, eternal life, or unconscious eternity—just nothingness. The sea is the symbol of itself. And to have that eternity in front of you day after day after day, always moving and yet unchanging, is not easy. Some people, living in front of the sea, get very tired of it after a while, and sometimes end up hating it. They feel that the ancient sea, always young, always new, is in a way corroding them, eroding them.
I found myself frequently wondering what J. was after, what fantasy or aspiration he imagined he was fulfilling, buying a farm on this sea, becoming a minor dueño. Numerous potential motives are given—“his inchoate and confused revolt against culture,” his desire to “escape a demeaning form of rationality,” to play “the role of beatnik rebels,” and then his “innocent dream . . . of wanting things to be fruitful and multiply.” Are any—or all—of these reasons “right?” Or are they merely excuses with which he bolsters and placates himself?
Those were his real reasons, contradictory as they were. Those were hippie years all around the world, rebellion years. In 1971 in Colombia we had a small Woodstock on a farm not far from Medellín: the Festival de Ancon. J. and Elena went there, of course. At that time all young people were more or less hippies and/or leftists, even the older ones like him. J. had read Nietzsche, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, however, and was a highly intelligent person; he would never get naked at a hippie festival, like those foolish guys at the Ancon Festival or Woodstock, and he would not even get into a tent. But he still was a rebel, a Latin American type of rebel from the 60s and 70s. His was a strange mixture, but it was the strange mixture of the times: Woodstock and Cuba's revolution. The hippie Christ and Che Guevara. And on top of that he became a landowner. J. bought all that land because it was beautiful, not because he wanted particularly to be a dueño, but from the moment he bought it he became a landowner, a lord of the land, and had to act like one. In this he had no choice.
There seems an interesting contradiction there—the hippie/Che Guevara and a lord of the land. Che was essentially a Marxist fighting capitalist imperialism, and the Woodstock movement was, supposedly, all for “Free Love” and against “The Man.” Yet when you own land, when you presume to be a lord over a piece of the earth, and employ others to work beneath your command, you become “The Man,” the embodiment of capitalist exploitation, don’t you? J. “had no choice,” you say—does this explain why in the end he’s a relatively poor dueño, because of this idealistic contradiction?
I think so. Many critics in the UK talked about J.'s arrogance, hubris. I strongly disagree. He just wanted to be happy. The finca was too big, true, but he didn’t buy it because of that. He fell in love with it. Sometimes he was too harsh with the people, but that was because of his lack of entrepreneurial skills, and out of exasperation and desperation, not because he felt superior to them in any way.
Elena also seems a powerful factor in J.’s dissipation. The book is a portrait of an unhealthy marriage and a scathing portrait of her: bratty, imperious, self-absorbed, rude. Yet you also write that she “exerted a fascination as instantaneous and innocent as it seemed inexhaustible on everyone.” I wonder how you feel about her and how you see her responsibility in all that happens?
I admire Elena. I like her. She was a warrior by nature, but then she declared war against the sea, the jungle, and the people of the region, and of course she lost. When she did lose, she went away, to places where she could declare wars that she could win. In all that happened in the finca, everything and everyone had a responsibility, or a “participation,” I should say—but it is just impossible to establish how much responsibility every single person had. She loved J., I think, and she stayed with him as much as she possibly could. I think God would be the only fully responsible party in all of this. Or the Sea, as the Kogui people understands it.
You open and end the novel with a piece of cosmology from the Kogui people, an ancient, indigenous Colombian people still living today. The Kogui believe in “The Great Mother,” the life force of the earth, which we, her children, are weakening with our heedless exploitation of resources. By this belief system, J. would be guilty of contributing to the destruction, with his razing of the trees for cash, and perhaps worthy of punishment. Do you believe that this “God” or “Mother” truly is responsible for the tragedy, in the sense that J. is being punished?
Not in that sense, no. She is ultimately responsible just because she is the origin of every single thing in this world. But I don't think she is a person or an intelligent entity. She is not a judge or a punisher. We humans probably needed and invented a punishing God, and invented guilt and responsibility, so our group could function and we wouldn’t kill each other at first sight. But who is responsible for the rain? Or for the tides? J.’s story is a tragedy, but nobody is guilty there, not even the murderer. I mean, in the human world he is guilty, of course, but the human world is just that, a tiny corner of the universe. In the universe at large, everybody is innocent. He, the murderer, was powerless against his own circumstances and was dragged by them as much as J. or Elena.
Do you have any thoughts as to how we are supposed to balance the fact that we are basically insignificant to the universe—powerless links in vast chains of circumstance, and thus, as you say, “innocent”—with the actuality of our life in society, in the human realm, supposedly responsible for our every action? How can we be innocent in the eyes of the cosmos and so frequently guilty in the eyes of society and the law?
Those two realms coexist. You can see that with your own eyes. The two facts that you mention are always balancing and unbalancing. I wrote J.’s story with that in mind, and I tried to keep the Kogui cosmological view of the universe present all along in the book. Human happiness and the human sorrow always dissolve into the big thing that is there and has always been there. The Tao, if you will. This is a point of view that has been expressed by Taoists, Buddhists, the Kogui people, and many poets. It is not new. What is new here is the unique way J.’s life unfolded and went from one realm to the other.
Tomás González was born in 1950 in Medellín, Colombia. He studied philosophy before becoming a barman in a Bogotá nightclub, whose owner published In the Beginning Was the Sea, his first novel, in 1983. González has lived in Miami and New York, where he wrote much of his work while making a living as a translator. After twenty years in the US, he returned to Colombia, where he now lives. His books have been translated into six languages.
Published Jan 7, 2016 Copyright 2016 Daniel Levine